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  • “What the Covid-19 Pandemic will change in education depends on the thoughtfulness of education responses today”, by Fernando M. Reimers.

“What the Covid-19 Pandemic will change in education depends on the thoughtfulness of education responses today”, by Fernando M. Reimers.

The Pandemic that is ravaging the globe is likely to cause the most serious disruption to educational opportunity in at least a century. The studies and lives of those currently in school will be impacted in multiple ways, some yet to be understood. Most immediately, because necessary physical distancing measures will interrupt – or have already - their opportunity to attend school they will learn less than they would have otherwise. Furthermore, they will forget much of what they learned this academic year, experiencing a variation of the well-studied phenomenon of ‘summer loss’ except that it will not be in the summer. School systems and governments will attempt to establish alternative modalities of education during the period of necessary social distancing, but those will most likely work well for children whose parents have more education, who have other social advantages, and who have access to resources, including online connectivity and devices, so they can continue to enjoy structured opportunities to learn. For many children lacking those conditions, the period of physical distancing is likely to result in very limited opportunities to learn.

In addition, the Pandemic will differentially impact children from different households, in ways more detrimental to the poor and otherwise marginalized. They will be more likely to suffer the brunt of the economic dislocations caused by the Pandemic, the more likely to suffer from infections to themselves and to their parents because their living conditions are such that make infections more likely, and they will have more limited access to health care to be treated if infected.

In most countries, public schools were invented so long ago that few of those alive today remember what life was like without them. Few know from direct experience that one of the functions of public schools was to level the playing field for children born into different circumstances. In recent past, any discussion of what difference schools really made to individuals or to societies was an exercise in imagination because no society decided to carry out the absurd experiment of really testing the idea of whether schools really mattered by shutting them down. The Pandemic will make visible what a world in which those institutions are not able to function as designed looks like.

No doubt for some children the disruption caused by the pandemic will be a time of experimentation, of greater autonomy for their own learning, of more self-direction, of experiencing productive collaborations between their teachers, guiding them through the power of online education, and their parents. But those won’t be the majority of the world’s children, they won’t even be the majority of the children in the most affluent societies.

For the vast majority of children who loose opportunities to learn because of the pandemic, it will be hard to recover from those losses, the harder the longer the period of physical isolation from other students and teachers. The educational disadvantage such losses generate will beget more educational, and eventually economic and social disadvantage. Because these losses will be experienced by large segments of the population, societies will suffer as their productivity is diminished.

As the educational disparities augment other social and economic disparities, and as structural inequalities are compounded, the gaps between the haves and the have nots will grow considerably.That the children of the poor should have severely more limited opportunities to learn during the pandemic than their non-poor counterparts, and that their lives should be significantly more disrupted by the pandemic,  is of course antithetical to the basic tenets of democracy, so as the idea that this is what is happening takes hold, this will undermine confidence in democracy and its institutions, already weak in many countries, and in decline.

This is a grim picture of how the Covid-19 Pandemic will shape the education landscape, and the future for the next decades to come. As with the health impact of the pandemic, the educational impact will be mediated by how humans respond, by the actions or omissions of students, parents, teachers and school and system level leaders in anticipation and during the Pandemic. Some responses are more likely to mitigate the educational impact, other responses will augment the negative impact of the pandemic. The worst response from educators would be to ignore the educational significance of the Pandemic, to pretend that this is not an educational issue, that it be short lived, or that the consequences on education will be minimal. This response is the one most likely to cause severe disruptions to education for most children, and the greatest disparities in educational opportunity.

In the jurisdictions where school heads, district leaders, or system level leaders bury their head in the sand, as many education commissioners and district leaders still do today in the United States and in other countries, they will find themselves scrambling to try to adjust to educating remotely when public health authorities and government officials conclude that the number of deaths, or the risks of collapse of the health infrastructure under the burden of the high number of people gravely infected, force them to suspend attendance to schools. A more adaptive response would be to use whatever time is available until the physical isolation measures are necessary to plan for the continuation of education, under what is likely to be a protracted period of physical distancing, using alternative modalities.

To animate and guide the process of thoughtful education responses, Andreas Schleicher and I have written a report titled A framework to guide an education response to the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020. Based on a rapid assessment of education needs and emerging responses in ninety-nine countries surveyed last week, the report identifies the most salient needs that should be addressed in these responses, as well as the areas likely to face more implementation challenges. It also examines the education responses of various countries to the crisis. Based on an analysis of data from the most recent administration of the PISA survey, the report also describes the challenges facing various education systems to depend on online education as an alternative modality.

Our hope is to be provocative and to cause teachers and education leaders, at various levels of governments, in the public and private sector, to recognize the severity of the educational risks represented by the Pandemic, and to take responsibility to lead a process that is as effective and equitable as possible in tackling this adaptive challenge.

One thing is certain about adaptive challenges, they cannot be solved in the same way as problems can be solved in a world that is predictable and stable, when technical solutions exist for the problems at hand. Adaptive problems require rapid learning, innovation and risk taking. They call for a willingness to step outside one’s comfort zone, for a commitment to pitch in, for the capacity to collaborate, and above all for clear thinking about what is truly important.

What is truly important at this time of crisis, urgent indeed, is to save an entire generation of students from the most significant risk educational opportunity has experienced in their lives and in the lives of their parents and grandparents. This is really a time to stand up for and with the children.


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Fernando M. Reimers

Fernando M. Reimers is the Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice in International Education and Director of the  Global Education Innovation Initiative and of The International Education Policy Program at Harvard University. He is interested in advancing understanding of the ways schools can empower students to participate civically and economically, and to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. His current research focuses on educational innovation and on the impact of education policy, leadership, and teacher professional development on education that supports the holistic development of children and youth.

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